Niralanes 101: Welcome to the Language I Built a Novel Series Around

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is a fantasy world built around Tolkien’s actual obsession: constructed languages. Tolkien wrote an entire series to explain the world behind languages he’d already invented.

He was that big of a nerd. And, it turns out, so am I.

The Non-Compliant Space series is, among other things, a setting for my own conlang obsessions. There are currently about four languages in the series in various states of construction, but by far the most well-developed (and most commonly used in the books) is Niralanes.

Book two in the series, Nahara, comes out soon from Autonomous Press. It contains entire scenes in which one or more characters speak Niralanes. Since all translations are approximate, here’s a primer on deciphering those sentences, if that’s your gig.

Image: A snowy night background with the title of this post and URL.

Basic Grammar

The basic unit of meaning in Niralanes is the verb. Nearly all words in Niralanes derive from a “root” verb form or can be traced back to a (now archaic) verb form. Verbs are identifiable primarily by their lack of any grammatical ending, or by the –ya (imperative) ending. They may also operate as proper names.

Other parts of speech may be identified with the following endings:

-ne adjective 

-es adverb or adjective; “in the manner of”

ie proper noun (titles)  

ya  proper noun (names)

-pa  noun (things, ideas) 

-ron noun (places, events) 

Sentences in Niralanes typically appear in subject-object-verb (SOV) order, although in some cases the object precedes the subject for emphasis (similar to the “passive voice” in Earth Standard). Endings that serve grammatical functions include:

-da possessive  

-eya  indirect object/object of the preposition

-ve plural (mass) 

-vo plural (discrete; things that can be owned)

-ai subject. When no verb follows, -ai functions as a copula.

No contractions are made when adding endings to a word. For instance, if a word ends in a, -ai is added directly, without omitting either a.

Ina  doripa an.

She (the) book writes.

Inaai anie.

She (is) (a)  writer.

Ina doripavo an.

She (the) book writes.

Emphasis on indirect objects is indicated by their placement in the sentence; the closer they appear to the subject, the greater the emphasis.

Ina doripa iaeya mai.

She (the) book to you-all gave. (She gave the book to you all.)

Ina iaeya doripa mai. 

She  to you-all (the) book gave. (To you all, she gave the book.)

Pronouns in Niralanes differ somewhat from those in Alash Kan or Earth Standard. Many speakers of these languages, feeling themselves unable to communicate without certain pronouns, have been known to insert Alash Kan pronouns. This is not recommended unless you know where Aristotle may stuff his triangle. Proper Niralanes pronouns include:

Inae 3d person plural 

Ina  3d person singular polite  

Ilik 3d person inferior 

Ia 2d person plural 

Issh 1st person plural mass 

Ila 1st person plural discrete 

Ihi 1st and 2nd person singular (used only when referring to kiiste)

Between Niralan speakers, pronouns are often omitted altogether. Speakers from the same kiiste will rarely use either the first or second person at all. Speakers/listeners from differing kiistes will often use ila for both speaker and listener to indicate agreement with one another and ia to indicate disagreement. Three or more kiiste in conversation will use issh to indicate agreement and ila to indicate disagreement. Offworld Niralan colonists nearly always use ila when speaking to, of or about Niralans born on Nirala.

Niralanes has no first person singular comparable to the Earth Standard I or second person singular comparable to the Earth Standard you. Many Niralans who have learned Earth Standard have learned to deploy these pronouns in contexts that sound native to an Earth Standard speaker. It should not, however, be assumed that because a Niralan uses I, she has the same internal experience of singularity as a human. The speaker has merely adopted a convention to make the Earth Standard listener more comfortable.

A non-Niralan speaker should never use issh or ihi.

Ina has a subtle sense of politeness when used to refer to a Niralan elder and a not-so-subtle sense of denigration when used to refer to any non-Niralan. In the latter context, ina serves as both 2nd and 3rd person singular. It is still not as degrading as ilik, which is a generalized 3rd person inferior when describing Niralans and 3d person plural when used to describe non-Niralans. Ilik functions similarly to the Earth Standard pronoun it.

Several nouns in Niralanes are irregular. Handle these with care. They invariably indicate a person, place, object, or idea of significant cultural importance.

Basic Pronunciation

Niralanes (lit. “in a Niralan manner”) is one of only two Niralan languages physically pronounceable by humans. It’s also the most commonly-spoken language on Nirala. 

Niralanes is transliterated into English at a ratio of one sound per letter. Stress is placed on the penultimate syllable of the word. 

Earth Standard speakers in particular are reminded that each syllable is pronounced separately. Repeating vowels are each pronounced individually and should be counted as separate syllables or parts of syllables.

kiiste name; person; front 

 ki-i-ste (3 syllables)

kiisteie “proper name”

ki-i-ste-i-e (5 syllables)

Many humans control the elision of repeating vowels by inserting a slight stop or pause between them. This stop or pause is transliterated with an apostrophe: . Certain words in Niralanes also incorporate the stop as a feature of pronunciation, usually to indicate negation. Since the human vocal apparatus cannot articulate the difference in sound between these two types of stops in practice, it’s best not to worry too much about which is which.

Pronunciation of each transliterated sound is as follows:

a as in father or optics

i as in pita or messy

o as in rotate or bowl

e as in mess or negative 

E is the most difficult vowel for most Earth Standard speakers. Take care not to slide into the diphthong ay or the schwa in unstressed syllables. When in doubt, simply push air through the open teeth without vocalizing, similar to a cat who is protesting a late dinner. Similarly, take care not to let a slide into the diphthong ay or to shorten the o (it should never sound like a).

Consonants in Niralanes are as follows:

m as in moon or many  n as in never or no

v as in velvet or voiceless s as in slither or soundless (not as in prise)

j as in jewel or jocular y as in yet or yellow

d as in dog or daring t as in distend or pretend

p as in nip or spin k as in kick or flak

t, k and p are never aspirated, resulting in some confusion between d and t, k and t, and p and b (which does not appear in Niralanes) in early transliterations.

f as in fade, soft (not to be confused with v)

r as in rain or brave, but with the teeth bared slightly over the lips (rather than pursed) and the tongue somewhat flatter behind the front teeth.

l as in last or laminate, but with the tongue somewhat further back than in Earth Standard.

h either as in hot or as in French helás. The latter is transliterated (h) in some texts and in others. Do your best. 

Niralan children learn Niralanes, along with several other languages, from birth. Niralanes therefore functions as a planetary lingua franca, similar to the adoption of Alash Kan or Earth Standard among their respective speakers. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that every Niralan you meet will speak it fluently. 

It is not, however, reasonable to assume that every Niralan you meet will speak. 

Wh- Questions, Numbers, and So On

Wh- questions, in Niralanes, are perhaps better thought of as Old- questions, “old-” being the prefix used to form them. Old- words can be placed anywhere in the sentence.

They include:

Oldie: whom, what

Oldron: when/whenever, where/wherever

Oldne: which/whichever, who/whose

Oldes: why/whyever

Niralans count in base-6, which can make discussions involving Nirala-related numbers confusing for listeners accustomed to a base-10 system. The numbers themselves are not difficult to learn, however; they consist of a “d” sound before the four vowels, the imperative -ya, and the negative stop, respectively:

0 da

1 di

2 de

3 do

4 dya

5 d’t

Numbers can be further adapted with the standard grammatical suffixes (see above). For instance, “second” can be constructed with “de” or 2, plus “-ne,” adjective.

Some Vocabulary

ama: to “get your feet under you,” to anticipate, to be a person, to be old enough, to be ready, to chatter, to have energy but no clear purpose

anev: to discover, to err but it works out, to make a serendipitous mistake, to have the odds fall in your favor a statistically suspicious number of times for no reason

anha: to blame, to diminish, to cause pain, to injure, to punish, to sacrifice (someone else), to set back, to shame

dar: to argue, to clarify, to discern, to experiment, to explain, to know because you reasoned it out and can “show your work,” to prove, to be blunt, to test, to understand, to agree to something because you already figured out that was the solution

hodevri: to ache, to act against one’s will and at great personal cost, to be insignificant in the face of a greater end, to oppose, to sacrifice oneself, to suffer, to do what is necessary

ise: to act with purpose, to avenge, to confront, to do what is possible, to fight, to forge ahead

ji: to catch up, to detail, to fall behind, to follow, to know because you studied every aspect, to organize, to procrastinate, to systematize, to teach, to be unable to see the forest for the trees

koa: to attend upon, to care for, to heal, to hold space for (someone present), to invest in a person or cause, to listen mindfully, to shelter

ola: to elide, to elude with an intent to deceive, to erase, to forget, to know something no one else knows, to lie by omission, to have the memory of a past feeling but not the feeling itself

pi: to confuse, to deceive others, to efface, to elude because unknowable, to know by supernatural means, to lie intentionally or overtly, to question by asking the unanswerable, to trick, to wonder

rion: to conserve, to discipline, to do one’s duty, to obey, to reserve for future protection or use, to train

tae: to blaze a trail, to disobey, to inspire, to know because f*ck you that’s how, to lead, to progress, to run

vioka: to circle the wagons, to civilize, to congregate, to hunker down, to settle

Meaning and Content

Niralanes is the lingua franca of Nirala, a planet with a population of only a few thousand people – all of whom communicate emotional content via touch, rather than via behavior, as humans do. (“That’s an interesting hat,” said with a smile, means something different than when it’s said with a grimace. The facial expression is behavior.)

Words for emotional states are thus utterly absent from the language; the closest way to communicate emotions in Niralanes is by describing the physical sensations they produce. Even then, it’s dodgy. Are you “nervous,” or do you have a stomach ailment?

Because humans are used to word-based communication conveying emotional content, reading Niralanes can be difficult. Connotation doesn’t exist in this language. Instead, every word covers myriad related concepts. A speaker or writer might mean to evoke all those concepts at once, or only certain aspects.

Niralans know which is which through touch. Humans have to muddle along by holding all possible meanings of each word in their minds simultaneously.

My goal, in constructing Niralanes this way, was to create a language that forced neurotypical humans to experience language the way I experience language: as an interconnected web of meaning-making possibilities, affected not only by behavior but also by wholly interior mental states. For me, some of those are emotional, some are associative memory, and some are synesthesia, and there are no clear boundaries between those three categories.

Some people just want to read space adventures, which is why Nantais and Nahara offer translations where what has been said is relevant to the plot. But the translations are themselves artistic choices made by the author with the specific intent to drive English-only readers to one particular interpretation of the series’ events and meaning. The translations are not what the Niralanes content “means.” Nor are they always accurate depictions of the events of the story. To understand that, the reader has no choice but to experience language my way.

For the cost of a cup of coffee, you can keep this blog running and the novels flowing.

Non-Compliant Space Character Descriptions: A Resource for Fanart

This tweet floated across my feed yesterday:

Tweet by @VickyCBooks. It reads, “proposal: authors keeping character descriptions on their website so fanartists can have a reference even if they don’t have a copy immediately on hand. pls i beg u”

I immediately retweeted it with the promise that I would do this for you, my beloved fans. I will describe characters for you.

This list is alphabetical. It’s ongoing, but also probably always incomplete. If you need a character description that’s not here, drop me a line in the comments!


Aqharan Bereth

Voldemort, if Voldemort were creepily handsome instead of just creepy. Bereth is tall (about 6’5″/196 cm) and fairly thin; his shoulders are a little too broad for the rest of his frame. Despite this, he doesn’t move as if he’s top-heavy, but rather like he’s been a professional dancer his whole life.

He has a long face, black hair that reaches to mid-back, ears that are pinned back slightly, and his eyes are a little too far apart. They’re blue. Blue blue. The kind of blue eyes that appear too often in bad fanfiction. Mid-May Mediterranean “nothing that blue actually exists in the real world, I must be hallucinating” blue.  “I will stab your soul” blue. However blue you’re planning to make them, make them bluer.

You know how Angelica can’t stop singing about Alexander’s eyes in Hamilton? Like that. Your impression of this man should be “he can and will kill me with his gaze, and I will let him. I will die happy contemplating these eyes that should not exist. Stare at me, senpai.”

His entire family, and all Rehhn, have skin that ranges from Cardassian gray to paper/snow/icing-sugar white. It’s also pearlescent. Yes, they literally glow.

He tends to wear monochromatic, minimalist suits that are of course made for him. He favors grey tones or muted blues. No embellishments – no buttons, rickrack, etc. People should wonder if he’s sewn into his clothes every morning or what.

Aqharan Mazereth

Mazereth is shorter than her father Bereth, but not much – about 6’2″. She has his too-broad shoulders, but on her they make it look like she’s basically a rectangle and her “curves in all the right places” (and she has curves in all the right places) were pastede on yey.

Her face is more square than round, and her eyes, rather than being “this blue is clearly fake” blue, are “I think they call this color ‘gunmetal'” grey/blue/purple. Her hair is also black, but a slightly warmer/more brown-toned black than her father’s, and it reaches nearly to the small of her back when it’s loose, which it never is.

She favors severe updos and painfully of-the-moment dresses, with heels, in an attempt to make herself look older than she is (she’s about 27 in Earth years). Most of her wardrobe is black, white, red, forest green, or royal blue.


Senior Engineer Cordry is 24 years old with an incredibly lanky build – all limbs, no curves. Cordry has hair the color and texture of cornsilk, in an inch-long cut that’s never quite even all the way around, being self-administered. Eyes are hazel-ish. Ears are a little too big for the face. Cordry’s skin tone is very pink even for a white person.

Entire wardrobe is “cargo” – cargo pants, cargo jacket, and so on, along with basic t-shirts in various colors, and always looking like Cordry got dressed in the dark. Everything’s a little too big, which obscures any curves Cordry may or may not have.

Special Agent Quincey Dillon

Medium. Medium everything. Whatever the median human [attribute] is, that’s Dillon. Dillon strikes the viewer as someone who is so utterly the median human that he should not exist. In fact you’re not even sure “he” is the right pronoun.

Favors three-piece suits in shades as medium as his skin tone, with flamboyant ties or those floppy bow-style ties that you see in pictures of Oscar Wilde.

Ideally, all images of Dillon will be generated by feeding billions of photos of human faces to an AI and asking it to generate the median human face. Every result will be equally accurate.


Hayek is about 6’5″, big-boned and strongly built but going slightly to seed. The kind of guy you would ask, “Dude, did you play football?”, except the perpetual scowl on his face kind of makes you not want to talk to him at all, in case he answers by punching you in the face.

Hayek’s ancestry is Latino/Hopi; in him they read as “generic Brown dude.” Lips are thin, nose/ears are a little too big and eyes (brown) are a little too small for his face; his nose has definitely been broken and not properly set at least once. His hair is black, but in that phase where it’s interspersed with gray so that it looks either black, charcoal, or salt and pepper depending on the lighting. It’s in a “high and tight” military cut, which doesn’t suit him. He’s not a handsome dude, but there’s something appealing about him when he smiles, which isn’t often.

Always wears combat boots, cargo pants, a basic t-shirt (black or white) sometimes with the sleeves cut off, and a large olive-colored Kevlar-plated jacket. Also always has at least one gun.


Erin Lang is 19 and is built almost exactly like Cordry, except her hair reaches past her waist (she can almost but not quite sit on it), her eyes are blue (regular blue), made larger by her choice of makeup, and her skin isn’t quite as pink as it is generic white girl. Her ears are quite small and she has a button nose. She has visible curves, unlike Cordry, though this is probably due more to how she dresses.

Lang prefers jeans and t-shirts or sweatshirts, most of which are random graphic tees, often relating to places she has never been or schools she has never attended. She has an oversized olive-colored field jacket of the type commonly found in Army surplus stores, with lots of pockets. Her whole wardrobe looks like she’s assembled it on the run from random thrift stores. Her hair is always worn straight down her back, without bangs.

Lang and Cordry are not actually related, but they look like they could be.

Makkarah Alatwi (Twi)

Twi is a young adult (around 25-30 in human ages), about 6’6″ tall and 300 pounds. There’s not a straight line anywhere in her build except the slope of her nose, which is basically a right triangle. Her eyes are gold; her skin is bright blue – not as bright as Aqharan Bereth’s eyes, but much that same Mediterranean sky color. (Devori skin tones range from royal blue to faded blue-grey, so she’s right in the middle.)

Her hair is the same color as her skin, but streaked with red and gold. The red is natural, the gold is not. She has a sprinkling of bright red freckles across her nose and cheeks.

She wears nondescript slacks or scrubs without embellishment, long-sleeved scoop-neck shirts, and a white lab coat that pulls downward at the shoulders because the pockets are so overstuffed.


About 5’4″ and 160ish pounds. I imagine her looking like Mae Jemison, only stockier. Molloy is built like a rectangle and gives the impression that she doesn’t use doors – she just walks straight through the wall. (In fact she has a giant soft spot for little kids and surly a-holes down on their luck, like Hayek.)

She’s 45 at the time of the first book. She dresses like Hayek, only with fewer weapons and a non-armored jacket.

(A note for fan creators: Molloy is a straight-up lesbian. She has never had Those Feelings for a dude in her entire life and she never will.)

Niralans (like, all of them)

The first thing to understand about Niralans is that every single one of them has the same basic face. The Niralan face is round, trending toward oval but not quite, with high cheekbones, a small nose and ears, medium-full lips, and eyes that are slightly larger than expected (with a third eyelid that fully retracts when they’re awake, unless they’re ill, similar to a cat’s), and way too many eyelashes. Skin tone is flat white, like standard flat latex wall paint.

What differ are hair tones, eye colors, the pattern of the kiiste (the black lines that cover the right side of the face and body), and heights/weights, which are influenced by their upbringing to a much larger degree than humans’ heights/weights are.

Nantais: Hair is true black and so are her eyes, with no clear difference between the iris and the pupil. Kiiste consist of four lines that converge and diverge in a twisting pattern across the right side of the forehead, merge completely at the outermost edge of the right eye, and diverge again across the right cheek and jaw and down the neck.

  • Dar Nantais is about 5’3″ and 120 pounds, mostly muscle. She has little in the way of curves; she’s built like she was born to spend her life crammed into small spaces. She’s most noticeable among Niralans by the way her face always looks tense. She wears utility coveralls or jeans and tank tops (usually black).
  • Koa Nantais is taller, about 5’6″, and 130-140 pounds, with considerably more curve (and less relative strength) than her cousin Dar. She moves like she’s not only completely comfortable in her body but enjoys causing pantsfeelings in others. Unlike most Niralans, she loves color and wears a lot of it; she’s very comfortable in full-length dresses. Koa smiles a lot. It’s not always friendly.

Nahara: Hair is blue-black; eyes are navy blue. Kiiste consist of three lines that otherwise look very similar to Nantais’s.

  • Piya Nahara is about 5’6″, barely 110 pounds; she looks bony and underfed, and her cheekbones and eyes are especially prominent. Until the end of Nahara, she never wears anything but a sleeveless black dress with two large pockets that looks like a potato sack.

Niralans get more white hair as they age. Until middle age (about 100 in Earth years), their hair is entirely black; as they get older, more white strands begin to appear, until the hair is completely white around age 175 or so.

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